Saturday, April 10, 2010

Frasierquest 2.3: The Matchmaker

Daphne unwraps a gift from her employerFrasier: Don’t take this wrong, but it never even occured to me you might be gay.

Tom: It never occured to me you might be straight.

Frasier: (uncertain) Thank you.

I’ve been waiting to call this for a while, and because I happened to watch this episode with commentary I feel confident in doing so: “The Matchmaker” is, officially, FRASIER’s first outright farce. It’s interesting to think that something for which the show is well known didn’t even become a part of it until the second season, and from all accounts, this had a lot to do with the hiring of writer Joe Keenan onto the staff. After this episode Keenan became known for Wodehousian farces, and the story mode itself became a key formula.

Of course, “The Matchmaker” is also the first episode to deal with the other elephant in the room. Even now, after the show has finished its run, people will still ask the question, “Just how gay are Frasier and Niles anyway?” A well-groomed, well-dressed man with a passion for opera, sherry, and French cuisine can’t help but fool some people, and the creative staff thought this was a good opportunity to clear up some misconceptions and stereotypes. And be really, really funny.

Daphne’s been having trouble finding a man, and Frasier, alerted to this problem when her smoking in bed causes the fire alarm to go off at 3 A.M., decides to help her out. Roz offers someone from her little black book, but Frasier snubs her, instead setting sights on the new station manager, Tom Duran (Eric Lutes.) Roz, feeling a little resentful, decides not to let Frasier know that Tom is gay, and so Frasier invites his boss to dinner in hopes of putting him and Daphne together, not knowing that Tom has his eyes on someone else.

This is Joe Keenan’s first episode as writer (at least in terms of airing), and it actually took a couple of tries to get accepted by the rest of the staff. They thought that the premise of Frasier inadvertently going on a date with his boss was funny, but would probably run out of steam early. The key to farce, as Keenan and director David Lee explain in the commentary for this episode, is to always escalate the action. It’s not just that Tom arrives at dinner and thinks he’s dating Frasier while Frasier thinks he’s dating Daphne. It’s that Niles shows up, and is naturally a little jealous and tries to disrupt things. And that he finds out about Tom’s intentions before Frasier does, and tells Martin first, waiting to drop the bombshell at the latest and most inconvenient moment. In the meantime, misunderstanding and situational irony simmer, investing each expression and bit of casual conversation with unintended innuendo.

It almost goes without saying that this demands a lot from the cast. They have to convey a lot that they don’t say, and Lee gets some amazing expressions from his cast. Lutes, who would go on to a regular role in CAROLINE IN THE CITY (which would itself do a very brief FRASIER crossover in a closing credits gag), is especially good. A former model, he’s handsome, charismatic, and at several points incidental and reaction lines of his were cut because his facial expressions said enough. (This is another one-episode station manager, though presumably he stays on offscreen for some time after.) The regular cast do some amazing nonverbal stuff as well, particularly David Hyde Pierce’s barely-contained glee at knowing Tom’s not-meant-to-be-a-secret and Kelsey Grammer’s awkward coyness trying to set the whole thing straight- er, to rights.

Speaking of which, a lot can be written on how the episode handles its sexual politics. According to Keenan and Lee, throughout the first season people had been suspecting that Frasier and Niles were being written as a couple, disguised as brothers for the sake of network sensibilities. This had mostly to do with the fact that as both men were fussy, fashionable, and a bit effete, they registered as “gay” to anyone familiar with the common stereotypes. The staff wanted to show that there is a difference between being a gay man and being a fop, and though the two categories can overlap, Frasier and Niles are firmly in one circle of the Venn diagram. To this end, Tom, despite being a snappy dresser and an opera buff, comes off as more traditionally masculine. And though Frasier does feel a little distressed when he learns of the misunderstanding, panic eventually gives way to a mature resolution. (This episode won a GLAAD media award in 1995 for its handling of the issue.)

This is one of the greats. The first act sets things up so well that the second is just one long series of complications and payoffs. The script is chock full of great lines, and the actors never miss a beat. It’s just really great television and a defining moment in FRASIER’s progression. Not a minute is wasted.

No Guest Caller

Written by Joe Keenan
DIrected by David Lee
Aired October 4, 1993

Frasier: Do you realize what this means?

Niles: Yes, you’re dating your boss. You of all people should know the pitfalls of an office romance.

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